FEB 5, 2010

Utter the name Guns N' Roses in metal circles, and without doubt, each and every punter will share their five cents. "Chinese Democracy" has its champions as well as its critics, and the same can be said for the band's 2010 lineup in general; some long for Guns N' Roses "Appetite For Destruction"'s lineup, whereas others respect and understand the transition. Mainman Axl Rose is another that prompts conversation, fans sharing thoughts and theories on the vocalist more than anything, some of which have been cobbled together by media reports - each report of which has its own axe to grind. To be fair though, no-one can offer any meaningful thoughts unless having had first hand experience with Rose on a personal level.

An estimated thirteen years in the making, "Chinese Democracy" hit shelves in late November 2008. Previous Guns N' Roses' studio full lengths "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II" were released simultaneously in September 1991, marking the last occasion the group had brought out a whole album of original material. Pairing exclusively with Best Buy, "Chinese Democracy" debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 261,000 copies in its inaugural week of issue. The record also appeared on the UK Albums Chart, debuting at #2. Platinum certification by the RIAA occurred on February 3rd, 2009, and "Chinese Democracy" also gained an IFPI European Platinum Award in recognition of having sold more than one million copies of the disc in Europe.  

DJ Ashba (Sixx:A.M.) was revealed as having joined the Guns N' Roses fold in February 2009 as lead guitarist, replacing Robin Finck whose departure was confirmed in April 2008. More than a year after "Chinese Democracy"'s issue, touring to promote the album finally began: four Asian dates occurred during December 2009, with a fully fledged Canadian trek happening from mid January 2010 until February. March, meanwhile, will see the outfit tour across South America. Whatever the act's future holds beyond then though is anyone's guess.

Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal's addition on lead guitar was confirmed in May 2006, the man being recruited on the recommendation of virtuoso Joe Satriani. A solo instrumentalist, Thal's catalogue includes: "The Adventures Of Bumblefoot" (1995), "Hermit" (1997), "Hands" (1998), "9.11" (2001), "Uncool" (2002), "Forgotten Anthology" (2003), "Normal" (2005), "Abnormal" (2008), and "Barefoot The Acoustic EP" (2008).

On January 9th at 21:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal at his home studio to discuss his time in Guns N' Roses.

Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: Hello?

UG: Hello. Can I speak to Ron please?

Yes, this is Ron. How are you?

I'm ok. This is Robert.

Yeah. How's it going, man? Finally... finally, we get speak (laughs).

"I was really happy with the whole Asian tour, and the people were always wonderful."

(Laughs) Yeah, it's going well. How are things with you?

Very good, actually. I'm at the studio now, finishing a little guitar solo I laid down for the next solo album from Mattias Eklundh. The solo's just a quick, little thing in one of his songs, just a little twenty-second thing.

You're always busy Ron.

Oh yeah, always. Always.

Would it be alright if I began the interview?

Yeah, of course.

How was Guns N' Roses' December 2009 Asian tour?

The Asian tour was fucking phenomenal. It's been a year since 'Chinese Democracy' came out, so I had no idea what to expect. I really didn't know how the reception would be, and it was more positive than any other tour from my experience. To me, this was better. Just everything felt right. The sound was better, and the way we interacted onstage with the audience - just everything felt right. We were having a real good time up there, and DJ, this was his first time doing shows with us after spending a whole year together on and off just rehearsing, and working out stuff, and hanging out. I have to say, he really stepped up to the plate, and to me, I think he just stole the show. He just kicked so much ass, and I was just so proud to be up there with him. I was really happy with the whole Asian tour, and the people were always wonderful; just very warm and welcoming, and good spirits all round. It was great.

What was the live guitar chemistry like on that specific tour, now that DJ Ashba is a part of the mix?

The chemistry felt better than it ever did, to me. I'm speaking from my own point of view. I should probably go back to the beginning when I first started playing with Guns... I jumped in, and I never had a chance to get my gear sounding right. I never had a chance to really learn the songs, and to get my parts where they needed to be. It was just a set of circumstances at that time where I had a lot of things stacked against me when I first joined the group, and it was hard for me to give what I could've given. It was a tough one. I was really just waiting for the moment when all the guitarists could sit down, work everything out, and do it the right way. Now, I finally have that double neck, and I have the right gear that I need to play the songs. Another thing is when I first joined the group, because leaks were such an issue they wouldn't give me the music. I didn't have any of their new songs, and the band would say to me "Just tell them you have to have it - you have to have the songs to learn them", but the management folks would not give me the music - they said "No".

The only way I could learn the songs was during rehearsals before we were on tour, like a week before. I would go into the other room, listen to the songs on the road manager's laptop with a set of headphones, write down notes, listen to them, try to remember all the parts, and do, as they say, the best I could. I would then go into the other room where everyone was waiting, and start playing. That's how I had to learn 'Chinese Democracy' (laughs) - on headphones with a laptop in half an hour. They didn't want me to have a copy, and I respected their wishes. Yes, I could've just gotten a hot copy from somewhere, someone, but I thought "Well, this is how they want it to be... I'm gonna respect their wishes, and when they want things to change, they'll change".

In the beginning, I didn't know what the hell I was really doing yet, and I wasn't getting much help (laughs). Even when we played live, I wanted to sing backing vocals and start doing that, but was told they didn't have enough room in the mixing board for me. I felt like the circumstances were minimizing and devaluing what I could bring to the group, and making it so much more difficult for me to do the right thing, and it wasn't helping anyone - it wasn't helping me, it wasn't helping the audience. But eventually, after more touring and laying my own guitar parts into 'Chinese Democracy', I had a better idea of what to play. Still though, I needed a fretless and a fretted guitar that I could change back and forth to do a lot of these songs, things like that. Finally this year, I got my gear together how I wanted it to be. I had my guitar parts and a feel for which parts I should play, and we were able to co-ordinate it between me, DJ and Rich. We came out, and it sounds better than it ever did. Finally. It's something that I wish could have happened years ago, but... yeah (laughs).

You said that you felt your contributions were being devalued at the beginning of your tenure with Guns N' Roses. Just so that readers don't jump to the wrong conclusions, could you clarify who was devaluing your contributions?

Right. It wasn't Axl or anyone in particular - it was the situation. It felt at times in the beginning like I jumped in at the last minute, and there wasn't room for me. There was no time for me to co-ordinate with everyone, so I almost had to play just with one hand tied behind my back in a way. I didn't have the tools I needed to do everything that I could've done.

How did you originally become a part of Guns N' Roses? How did Axl, and the other members of Guns N' Roses at that time, hear about your guitar playing?

Well, it was actually awhile ago. It was in the summer of 2004; I got an email from Joe Satriani, and he said that he had recommended me for Guns N' Roses. They were looking for someone to replace Buckethead, and told me in case someone got in touch, so I knew it wasn't a joke or anything. At that point, I really didn't know that much about Guns N' Roses and what they were doing, where they were at album wise, touring wise, so I took it lightly. I said "Ok... If they call and get in touch, I guess we'll be playing some bars... whatever's going on (laughs)". They got in touch, and it was about a year and a half before we started working together, and it was at the very last minute. I didn't think it was gonna happen at that point, and honestly, I was very happy with what I was doing - I had my own albums that I was putting out, and I was touring with that. I was producing a lot of people, I was teaching at a college and really enjoying that... My life was completely in my... not control as it were, but I was doing everything I wanted to do, and I was really happy with it. I knew that if I joined Guns N' Roses, I would have to give up a lot of things, so I wasn't really that quick to jump into it.

About a year and a half later, they had a tour ready, and they got in touch, and we started talking again. They said "Hey, do you know some of the songs?". I said "Yeah. Tell me what to learn", and they named three songs. I just came down with my guitar, and just plugged it into whatever they had there - a Marshall or whatever it was - and jammed with them, and just had fun. That was it. They then said "Hey - you wanna come back tomorrow, and do another three songs?". I said "Sure", and we did that. Every night, I would come down knowing three more songs, all of the older material and everything. Then while I was there, I would try to learn some of the newer songs.

At the time though, I had a tour booked. This was in April of 2006, and I had my own tour booked in May and June. I was gonna be going from Iceland to Russia with my band, and touring to promote the 'Normal' CD. I was talking to management, saying "Well, I need to know - either this is gonna happen, or it's not. I'm not cancelling anything until this is definite". Finally, at the last minute they said "This is definite". I told them even before I came down - I said "If you want me to come down, it's because I'm pretty much in the band, because you're hiring me, because you want me, because I'm in, and because we're doing it. Otherwise, I'm gonna be doing what I'm doing".

We then just quickly hit the road, and I had no idea that the shows were gonna be that big. I didn't know that their following was so hardcore. We were playing shows, and headlining festivals with a hundred thousand people. I thought "Wow, that's cool". I was happy that people cared, it was a good thing. I was prepared in my head to be playing in front of a few hundred people, and wherever it was, it really didn't make a difference. One thing a lot of people would ask was "How does it feel to play in front of a sea of people?", and it feels no different than just playing in a bar, because you're still doing what you do, and your feet are still on ground under you, and you still have a guitar in your hand. Anything around you could be red or blue, or green, and it could be a thousand people or a hundred thousand people. You're still just doing what you do, and it doesn't really feel different.

"When I first joined the group, because leaks were such an issue they wouldn't give me the music."

What are your memories of your original audition for Guns N' Roses?

(Laughs) My memories of the original audition... I try not to remember. I try to block it out of my mind (laughs). What can I remember from it? Umm... I would just come down, park my car in the lot down the road, and just walk in. Everybody would be there. I think the band was pretty exhausted from the audition process they had gone through before I showed up; I think they had spent months checking out different guitarists, and were ready to get onstage. It was different. I had never played in someone else's band before, and I always did my own thing. Sure, I've jammed with tons and tons of people. I've played with all different people, but to be a member of someone else's band officially, I never really did that. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I would be welcomed and treated like family, or if I was gonna be treated like just some co-worker in the next cubicle. I didn't think about it. I didn't try to analyze what was going on, or how I was being treated or not treated. I just thought "Alright, look. I'm here to make music, and that's what I'm gonna do, and that's it", and that's all I focused on - to do the best I could.

It definitely had its challenges though, like learning the new songs and having to fill more than just one pair of shoes. That's another thing that was strange; it was a whole new experience being part of a band where a lot of followers of the band had this attitude of "You're not my daddy.. You're not my real dad (laughs)" - that whole thing of "You're not Slash, you're not Buckethead, you're not Gilby... you're not...". It's not just filling someone else's shoes - it was like filling a shoe closet (laughs). That surprised me as well, because usually when you're onstage, and people come to see you, it's because they want to see you. Getting used to the idea that there were people that might be wishing I was someone else made for a very dynamic situation where in the same moment you're being hit with that, along with fans that were just so grateful to see the band back on the road and so happy to be hearing it, and enjoying getting to know each other... It was extreme highs and lows that went along with the gigs in the beginning.

Now that you're a member of this big group in Guns N' Roses, how much more guarded do you have to be?

How much more guarded?

Yeah, in terms of people seeking information about what's happening in the world of Guns N' Roses.

(Laughs) Well, that was something that in the very beginning I learned the hard way. I had never experienced anything like that, where I had to be guarded. For me, the natural thing to do when you're in a band is to let all your fans know everything that's going on, and to include them in everything that's going on. That's something I always did; I would keep updates all the time on my forum, on my site, and just answer questions and make videos, and bring people down to the studio, and let them hear pieces of what's going on, and let them participate. There was one tour I did - I think it was in 2002. I was touring France, so I had all these French people from message boards pick the set of songs that we would play. I told them to just pick twenty-five songs out of the seventy-five, whatever it is, that they would wanna hear, and from there, whichever songs got picked the most were the ones that we played, and that was our set of music that we toured with. Doing things like that was always what was natural to me.

I remember when I first started talking to Guns N' Roses back in 2004, I had never experienced the whole thing of people just out to get information, and to break news, and almost use it to the detriment of what's trying to be accomplished. That was something I was naive about, so when I first started talking to them, some rumours started locally in New York, and that was completely my fault. When I was teaching at college, I told the head of the music department, I said "I may not be able to work the next semester because I might have to go record with Guns N' Roses", and he let it slip to the students (laughs). I remember I went away for a week to Russia to do some shows of my own, and I came back and had all these emails and phone messages, saying "Oh, I've heard that you're touring with Guns N' Roses" and all this stuff.

At that point, I was just talking with them. It was all just "I might be", so I wanted to clarify it. I went onto my website, and said "Just to make things clear here, I am not a member of Guns N' Roses. I spoke to them, and we talked about me joining, but all we did was talk. Nothing happened - we just had conversations". Even then, I felt like I was downplaying it, because I had two months of conversations and thirty pages of emails between management and band members. Once I said that though, that got used against me (laughs), I was trying to say I was not in the group. The next thing I knew, my little blurb ended up on music news websites, saying "New Guitarist Found For Guns N' Roses?". "According to local New York guitarist: "Yes, we've been talking"", and they left out the part where I said "I am not in Guns N' Roses" in big letters. It just backfired, and caused even more trouble.

I got into a big argument with management, who said "Who said you were gonna play in Guns N' Roses?.. Blah blah blah... I want you to retract this and that...", so I did. At that point, I just wasn't liking that whole environment because I've always been very anti-music business - I've always been anti-bullshit. I've been just basically about music, and doing it without playing the game, and going through all that stuff, and dealing with all that stuff. I just prefer to keep it human; I play, you listen, and we have a great time together, and cut out all the bullshit and the business shit.

At that point, I said "I don't think I'm the guy for this", and I told them "I will help you.. I will be happy to help you. I'll audition people for you discreetly, and I'll help you find the best guitarist you can, but I don't think this is for me". Then management went, and they put out some kind of press release which implied that I had lied to get publicity, and that they had nothing to do with me. It ended up causing a little battle between me and management, and that's why we didn't speak for a good year and a half (laughs). They then contacted me, and said "Do you want to work this out?". I was still all pissed off, because management really took it to extreme measures - that I won't even get into - trying to get me to say that I lied to get publicity, and I refused. I should also mention that that management is long gone - they're not around anymore (laughs). I was pretty pissed at them, but we managed to just talk it out, and come to an understanding.

To confirm then, do you get along better with Guns N' Roses' current management? Is your relationship with them a lot more cordial than your relationship was with the past management?

Once I was in the group, then we were getting along fine. It was just before then, they were misunderstanding what I did, and they were assuming the worst. I tried to stop rumours from spreading, but I just made it worse. I just really didn't know just how guarded you needed to be with things when it comes to a band like Guns N' Roses, or any band with big name recognition. Once we chatted about it a year and a half later, everything was fine. I get along with everyone - you have to be a real dick for me to not like you (laughs). I'm pretty easygoing.

When you're performing Guns N' Roses' tracks from the group's old albums live, how do you put your own individual stamp on them?

When I first joined the band, I also had the feeling that I had to do something more. I felt like I was brought in to play all the wacky, noodly stuff, and I might've been overdoing it a lot of the time, instead of just being myself. What do I do now? Honestly, I just try to play them the way they were written, and the thing is, no two guitarists play the same way. You can take Eddie Van Halen and you can take Ace Frehley, and have them play the same riff, and you can tell who is who. It comes from the hands. I just play the songs as authentically as I can, and try to respect the way the songs were written, and the way people came to love the songs. That's it. I just feel that if it comes from your own hands, it has your own feeling to it. Sometimes I do things with the fretless guitar. With the slide parts, what I do is I jump onto the fretless neck and do the slide on that neck, and jump back down, little things like that. But as far as changing parts of the songs to make them my own, I would rather respect G N' R's music. On 'Chinese Democracy' songs, I play the parts that I wrote and recorded, and with everything else, I try to respect the songs as they were written and recorded.

"It felt at times in the beginning like I jumped in at the last minute, and there wasn't room for me."

Do you feel that's what Guns N' Roses' fans feel they are paying for as well? To hear those classic Guns N' Roses tracks as they were originally intended?

Umm... Yes, and no. I'm sure they wouldn't wanna hear new lyrics. They don't want the songs rewritten on them, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind having parts extended and jamming, and we do that. At the end of "Nightrain" for example, we'll just keep on soloing and keep jamming. Everyone's different. I think overall, they just want the concert experience, the songs they love, plus that human element turning it up a notch, and just everything you get at a concert - just the exchange of intensity that happens. I think that's what anyone wants at any concert; to walk away and feel like you just experienced something huge, just very touching. Something that you won't forget, where you won't forget the feeling or what you saw, or what you heard, and just... yeah. Hopefully we do that for them. Hopefully people walk away happy, and are enjoying themselves. I know we are (laughs), definitely, and I think people sense that. Also, they sense that we're having a good time, and one good time leads to another.

Speaking of jamming and playing live, what was that December 2009 Tokyo show like? The one that was reportedly Guns N' Roses' longest concert to date?

The one in Japan where we just played, and played, and played? I would love to do that every fucking night. That was so cool. It started to happen in Osaka, where we ended up playing three hours and seventeen minutes. We have a list of songs that's sort of like a set list, but we just call them out. There's a little microphone on the stage that only we hear, and someone will go up to it - Tommy or Axl - and say "Hey, what do you wanna do next?". One of us will then just mention a song, and they'll say "Yeah, cool", and we'll go into that one. I remember I started playing the riff to "Whole Lotta Rosie" from AC/DC, because we're all huge AC/DC fans, and then Axl started singing. I thought "Oh, cool. We'll keep going", and we ended up playing the whole song, and then we did it again in Tokyo. That was just completely spontaneous, and it was the same thing when Tommy started playing "My Generation" - we all jumped in, and just played that song. One night, he said "Yeah, let's do "Sonic Reducer" from The Dead Boys". I said "Hell yeah", and we just busted that out (laughs).

Even my solo I started doing. I wasn't even gonna play a solo - I fucking hate taking a solo (laughs). I would rather play another song, and that's why I started doing the "Don't Cry" singalong thing with the audience as my solo, because I care more about the song and the music and all that than the soloing and the spotlight. I'm not in it for the spotlight. I'm a song guy. You wouldn't think so with all the noodling I do, but I'm in it for the music. At the very last minute... it was three days before we were heading out (laughs). I thought "Alright, I gotta think about a solo", and then I thought "You know what? How about the 'Pink Panther' theme? Nobody's done that, right?". I just came up with an arrangement, we all worked it out, and we did that, so a lot of things were just very spontaneous.

Interview by Robert Gray
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010


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